How to Create Social Media Policies for Your Public Safety Office

Written by Jennifer Elliott

Social media has proven to be one of the most impactful methods for local governments to engage citizens and distribute vital time-sensitive information. The nature of social media platforms lends themselves to the sharing of trusted information and instructions to a broad audience, which is a critical component of a multi-channel safety communication strategy. Like all reliable tools, however, your social media accounts need restrictions, especially when it comes to distributing potentially life-saving information when time every second counts.

Every public and private sector entity that utilizes social media needs to have internal policies in place to ensure proper, safe, and legal use of the social platforms that are becoming the new normal for how citizens learn, communicate, and share. Not only do social media policies ensure consistency and use of best practices, but they will also keep your staff from inadvertently violating the public’s trust. Establishing and following social media policies will allow your public safety office to maintain social media accounts your citizens perceive as valuable and informative and turn to when in need of information and instructions during a local emergency.

Social Media Legal Considerations

All individuals that manage a social media account need to have a basic understanding of some legal considerations that surround social platforms. Understanding the critical basics of social media law will help protect your public safety office from an inadvertent violation (Note: this information is not intended to serve as legal guidance; always consult your legal department for proper counseling and advice). Make sure everyone in your public safety office with access to post to your social media accounts understands the following three basic principles:

1. Photographs found online are typically copyrighted. Including a photo in your social media post instantly increases its readability and can be an effective way to draw attention to informative, non-urgent posts such as information about potential construction-related traffic, or seasonal weather-related safety reminders. Understand, however, that even though an endless supply of photos is only a Google Image search away, they are the property of the individual who took the picture and cannot be shared by a public or private sector entity without permission. This requirement pertains to images that are as seemingly innocuous as generic public safety personnel or weather-themed imagery.

 2.You’ll want permission to share photos of citizens. Consult your legal department regarding policies your public safety department should follow when it comes to sharing pictures of citizens. Perhaps you take pictures during a school shooting public safety drill or of your CERT team training class. Without the written permission of those involved, however, especially minors, you may not want to post such photos on social media. Pictures of citizens participating in outdoor public events, or pictures in which the face of the individual is obscured or unclear, may not be subject to the same legal restrictions, but whenever minors are concerned, err on the side of caution and seek legal guidance.

3. Any promotions must follow the platform’s terms of service. Some social media platforms outline specific guidelines in their terms of service as to how to operate promotions that utilize their platforms. Be sure to refer to such instructions before building and executing a social media contest.

Creating Social Media Policies That Protect Your Citizens and Your Public Safety Department

With an understanding of the three previously mentioned legal considerations, ensure your public safety department’s social media guidelines address the following scenarios and policies:

 1. Outline Goals for Your Social Media Accounts and Determine the Types of Content You Want to Share. Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing goals for your public safety department’s social media use. Whether you are trying to educate citizens about possible natural disaster risks in your community or using social media to amplify the reach of AMBER or Silver Alerts, your goals should directly impact the types of content and messages you share.

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2. Determine Which Employees May Post to Your Social Media Accounts. It is best to restrict access to your social media accounts to a single individual, or a small number of staff members who work closely together to ensure consistently coordinated messages. The more people who have access to your profiles, the more chances there are for duplicative posts, conflicting posts, or information that has not yet been vetted, especially when breaking news and safety information is developing and evolving rapidly.

 3. Identify When You Will Need a Citizen’s Permission to Share His Photo. If you are responsible for photographing local news events, it may be logistically difficult to obtain written permission to share photos of every single citizen you photograph. When possible, obtain written consent to use a citizen’s picture, or that of his or her child, in your social media communications. Your legal department can guide you further.

Remember that even more important than deciding when you need permission is making sure you have it. It can be tempting to quickly snap a photo of teenage community volunteers participating in clean-up efforts after a local flood and post it right away to social media but imagine how a parent may feel if they unexpectedly came across a picture on social media that revealed their child’s current location.

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4. Establish Policies Regarding Direct Citizen Communications. Social media provides both one-to-many, and one-to-one communications, which means it is a direct channel for citizens to reach you to ask questions, share feedback, and make suggestions. In this way, social media is an excellent tool for increasing citizen engagement. However, if mismanaged, it can quickly lead to citizen disappointment on a public platform.

Make sure you and your staff determine who is responsible for responding to direct messages and comments, and in what timeframe. Citizens may have specific questions about where to go, or what areas to avoid during an emergency, or how to find out if their loved ones are safe following a natural disaster. Facebook pages include an indicator of your page’s response rate and response time. If a citizen sees your page administrators do not respond consistently, or timely, he will be less likely to attempt to engage with you via your social account in the future.

 5. Establish a Policy for Responding to Negative Feedback. One of the most challenging aspects of managing a social media account for any entity can be responding to public criticism, and often, nothing creates feelings of stress and concern than a local emergency. Having a platform that allows direct, public access to citizens means your public safety office is opening itself up to both public praise and criticism. It will undoubtedly be disappointing to see a social media comment from someone complaining about your department’s response to a recent emergency, but as your municipality knows, governing requires listening, accepting feedback, and using it to make improvements moving forward.

Understand that your public safety office should not fear criticism. More importantly, you cannot ignore it, delete it, or block the commenter. It will do more good for your department’s reputation for your followers to see you have responded to a concern than to ignore it.

Establish department policies for who will respond to negative messages or comments, how quickly, and with what type of response. You may want to consider a standard response such as, “Thank you for your feedback. We value the input of our citizens and are sorry that you felt (insert concern here). Please know that we will consider this feedback when responding to (event type) in the future.”

If a comment is hypercritical or includes personal information, such as an accusation of something a representative of your community or a citizen may have said or did, encourage the commenter to discuss further outside of the social media channel. There is no need for such correspondence to be public. Consider a message such as, “We are sorry to hear that (events) occurred and would like to discuss with you further. Please call our department at (contact information) or message us privately and tell us how we may reach you.”

6. Establish Policies for When You Should Delete Negative Comments. While your public safety office should respond to negative comments, there are times when it is acceptable to delete Your department will want to outline clear guidelines to help staff identify these instances. You should consider removing social media posts that could be deemed as offensive, inappropriate, spam, libel, or slander. Your legal counsel can guide you further.

Conclusion

Your public safety department’s social media channels should be a vital component of your communication strategy. With proper guidelines and staff training, you can take advantage of all the benefits that social media offers for connecting to citizens, with minimal risk of privacy, copyright, and legal concerns.

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